NASCAR has power in fight

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When NASCAR people talked about the need for speed, methamphetamines weren't part of the conversation.

Suddenly, they're talking about little else.

What ignited all the talk was driver Jeremy Mayfield's come-from-behind win earlier this week in what promises to be a long and grueling legal race. Fair or not, the only way Mayfield wins -- let alone makes it to the end -- is if he turns out to a better plaintiff than driver.

Hauling NASCAR before a judge to contest his suspension for failing a May 1 drug test is like setting fire to the toll booth that sits on the only span leading back to the sport.

If he thinks the guys on the track play hardball, wait until he tries running with NASCAR's suits in a courtroom. Fair fight or not, they're in the image business. Instead of just bumping Mayfield, their job is to make him disappear.

"Either Jeremy or NASCAR is wrong, and I don't know which one," said veteran driver Mark Martin, "but whichever one is wrong is really hurting the other."

What isn't in doubt is who is more capable of hurting whom. U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen certainly gets that.

Keep in mind that even though Mayfield won Round 1, the celebration didn't last long.

Although the temporary injunction granted him the right to enter this weekend's race at Daytona, he didn't turn up by Thursday's deadline to claim a spot for his own team. Strapped for cash, he seems to make sponsors jittery, or as one small team owner put it, he's "marked."

It wasn't the first time someone described Mayfield that way. Except they meant marked for stardom, not nicked by the first big drug-testing mess that landed in NASCAR's lap.

Mayfield was a rising star nearly a decade ago, and as recently as 2004, he got another shot at a breakthrough. He squeezed into the initial Chase for the Championship by winning the final qualifying race in the last laps, including an audacious bump of Dale Earnhardt Jr. near the very end.

Hungry to promote their just-launched playoff series, NASCAR stressed the last-chance angle in a few ads. It turned out to be more accurate than Mayfield or the marketing people dreamed.

Mayfield hasn't been offered a ride from a top-flight team since eaving Ray Evernham's top-flight operation in 2006. This season, he owns his own low-budget team. He says he's had to borrow from relatives, lay off 10 employees and sell personal assets to met his living expenses. His best chance for a paycheck comes at the Brickyard at the end of the month; whether he'll have enough cash to run a car and still pay a lawyer is anyone's guess.

NASCAR hasn't said much about its legal battle plan. But with its deep pockets and non-nonsense attitude, the people in charge will do all they can to make sure he's nowhere near the racetrack.

Reach Jim Litke at jlitke@ap.org.

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